AUBURN, Ala. -- This wasn’t the vision of Georgia football that Kirby Smart was selling earlier this season.
A week after Smart preached an aggressive style of play, telling reporters boldly that, “I want to hunt,” the weight of being the No. 1-ranked team in the country finally seemed to get to him. His Bulldogs became the hunted against the 10th-ranked Auburn Tigers on Saturday night, and the result was a 40-17 loss that dropped Georgia from the ranks of the unbeaten and eliminated any margin of error when it comes to reaching the College Football Playoff.
Give Auburn credit, of course. Tigers coach Gus Malzahn pushed the envelope on offense, and Kevin Steele’s defense again showed why it's one of the best units in the country. Jeff Holland looked like one of the best pass-rushers in the country, and Kerryon Johnson one of the SEC’s premier playmakers at running back. Suddenly, the two-loss Tigers have playoff hopes with a monster game against No. 2 Alabama looming in two weeks.
But Georgia deserves further examination. Because what happened in Jordan-Hare Stadium was a series of self-inflicted wounds. There were poorly timed penalties, such as a late hit out of bounds and an instance of roughing the kicker that added up to 10 points, but it was so much more than that. In the end, it was a failure in philosophy, taking the foot off the gas even though mashing it to the floorboard had worked so well all season.
For the first time, Smart and offensive coordinator Jim Chaney treated freshman quarterback Jake Fromm with kid gloves, taking the ball out of his hands when the game was still close, even though he threw a couple of solid passes to start the game. Instead, Georgia became predictable with a heavy dose of Nick Chubb and Sony Michel that amounted to very little success.
After a long punt return set up an opportunity to go for points just before the half, Smart inexplicably handed the ball off on first down rather than take a shot at the end zone. The gain of 1 yard did nothing for Rodrigo Blankenship as he hooked the 42-yard field goal attempt wide right.
Coming out of the break, Auburn took complete control.
Malzahn’s Tigers announced themselves as players on the national stage again. Auburn quarterback Jarrett Stidham, who had shown flashes of potential since transferring from Baylor during the offseason, put it all together with three touchdowns passing and another touchdown on the ground.
Georgia, which has already locked up the SEC East title, will close out the regular season against Kentucky and Georgia Tech before playing for the conference championship in Atlanta.
With a win over Alabama in two weeks, Auburn could very well be the team the Bulldogs face in Atlanta for a chance to move on and represent the SEC in the playoff.